Cover image: The Camp Meeting, by Worthington Whittredge.
In the early nineteenth century, religious fervor was pervasive in New York and Ohio. It began as early as the 1790’s, when many Christians became concerned by the increasing rationalism and skepticism that was making inroads into their religious life. They yearned for more from religion than their churches then offered—some seeking a return to the Christianity as described in the New Testament. This popular crusade to stir religious zeal, later called the Second Great Awakening, led to numerous revivals, a surge in conversions, and even the founding of new Christian sects.
One feature of this revivalist culture was an increased interest in spiritual manifestations and gifts. Many of the religions from a Calvinist background required some kind of spiritual manifestation as evidence that the person was part of those predestined to salvation, including prophesying, crying, shouting, dancing, shaking, and rolling on the ground. It may well be that many in that day “manufactured” sensational experiences to convince their minister, their neighbors, and perhaps even themselves that they were among the elect who would be saved.
Some groups even made some of these practices a formal part of their worship.
As Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer Jr. left Kirtland and moved on to other fields of labor, they left over one hundred converts. Several prominent figures among the new converts left about the same time (including Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge, who went to New York to meet Joseph Smith). These new converts had plenty of zeal but little experience or direction. They had few copies of the Book of Mormon and no copies of Joseph Smith’s other revelations to consult in practicing their new faith.
Many of these new believers had been attracted to the restored gospel by the promise of marvelous manifestations of the Spirit, especially those they knew about from studying the New Testament. In their zeal, some of them began to introduce elements of enthusiastic worship—or “spiritual operations” as they sometimes called them—into their meetings. Soon, some unusual expressions of worship—including falling to the ground or writhing like a snake—were introduced into their church meetings. Many found it hard to discern which manifestations were of the Spirit and which were not. (See Revelations in Context: Religious Enthusiasm among Early Ohio Converts, by Matthew McBride)
Levi Hancock was one of more than a hundred baptized as a result of the visit of these four missionaries. In 1830, he was 27 years old and lived in New Lyme, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Kirtland. During his childhood, his mother had instilled in him a deep interest in spiritual matters. Hancock believed that God often intervened in daily life and spoke to men and women through dreams. (Revelations in Context includes this citation: Unless otherwise noted, quotes in this article are taken from Levi Hancock autobiography (1803–1836), unpublished typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.)
In the early part of November 1830, Hancock’s brother Alvah brought him word of the Book of Mormon: “Four men have come and have brought a book with them that they call [a] history and a record of the people that once inhabited this land.” His interest stirred, Hancock expressed a desire to hear these preachers. “Tomorrow they are to hold a meeting at Mr. Jackson’s in Mayfield,” his brother said, adding, “They lay hands on those they baptize and bestow on them the Holy Ghost.”
Hancock described his reaction: “At these last words … there seemed to fall on me something pleasant and delightful[.] It seemed like a wash of something warm took me in the face and ran over my body which gave me that feeling I cannot describe. The first word I said was, ‘It is the truth, I can feel it. I will go and hear for myself tomorrow.’”
In early January 1831, Levi Hancock met three young men named Edson Fuller, Heamon Bassett, and Burr Riggs, who introduced themselves as elders of the Church of Christ. According to Hancock, these young elders engaged in “all manner of doings” during worship services. Burr Riggs would “jump up from the floor, strike his head against the joist … swing some minutes, then fall like he was dead.” He would then rise and relate visions he had while unconscious. “Edson Fuller would fall and turn black in the face. He[a]mon Bassett would behave like a baboon.”
These strange behaviors perplexed Hancock. After all, he himself had experienced feelings, impressions, and dreams he believed were spiritual communications. The young men seemed “so honest and sincere I was led to believe all [they] said.” He even worried that “perhaps I was not as pure as those young men.” However, their actions were very different from the spiritual feelings he had experienced.
These three young practitioners of enthusiastic worship were not alone. Many converts from diverse religious backgrounds contributed to a wave of enthusiasm in the Church in Ohio in early 1831. A man known as Black Pete, a former slave and new convert, brought his experience with the slave shout tradition, including perhaps the practice of speaking in tongues.
Word that local Mormon worship services often featured these curious manifestations drew the ridicule of many observers. A newspaper in nearby Painesville reported contemptuously that after the missionaries left, “a scene of the wildest enthusiasm was exhibited, chiefly, however, among the young people.” John Corrill, a January 1831 convert, later wrote, “It was but a very few of the church who were exercised in that way,” and there were many, he added, that “were suspicious that it was from an evil source.”
While still in New York, Joseph Smith became concerned about the lack of leadership among the new converts in Ohio and sent John Whitmer to Kirtland with copies of the revelations to “strengthen my brethren in that land.” When Whitmer arrived in mid-January 1831, he was surprised by the variety of spiritual goings-on that he witnessed.
Shortly after his own arrival in Kirtland in February, Joseph Smith set about to curb these displays of enthusiasm. He wrote to his brother Hyrum (then in Colesville, New York) on March 3 reporting, “I have been engaged in regulating the churches here as the disciples are numerous and the devil had made many attempts to overthrow them.”
There were still important questions that remained unanswered. If the Book of Mormon promised the presence of spiritual gifts in the Church, did these practices qualify? Just how was one to distinguish the gifts of God from human inventions or the influence of evil? Hadn’t Joseph Smith himself been blessed with many miraculous manifestations of the spirit? And what about Alma and Lamoni in the Book of Mormon, who fell, apparently unconscious, while the Spirit spoke to their souls?
Overview of Doctrine and Covenants 46
In order to answer Joseph’s questions about the manifestations of the Spirit, the Lord gave a revelation on March 8, 1831, now known as Doctrine and Covenants 46. He told the elders how to conduct sacrament meetings, reminding them that they should be “guided by the Holy Spirit” in directing their meetings. The revelation sanctioned the presence of spiritual gifts in the Church, and even encouraged the members to “seek ye earnestly the best gifts always remembering for what they are given.” (v.8) It cautioned, however, “Some are of men of others of devils. Wherefore beware lest ye are deceived.” (v.7-8)
The revelation listed some of the gifts that faithful saints could expect to find in the Church, including faith, miracles, knowledge, healing, and speaking in tongues. These are similar to those found in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon (see 1 Corinthians 12:4–11; Moroni 10:8–18). The Lord also promised that bishops, elders, and others who were appointed to “watch over the Church” would have the gift “to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any prophesying among you and yet not be of God.” (v. 27)
Verses 7-25 contain the same nine gifts that are listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, and four new gifts are given in verses 13-16. (1) “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” (2) “to others it is given to believe on their words. (3) “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the differences of administration,” and (4) “to others to know the diversities of operations.”
The heading to this section reads: “In this early time of the Church, a unified pattern for the conducting of Church services had not yet developed. However, a custom of admitting only members and earnest investigators to the sacrament meetings and other assemblies of the Church had become somewhat general.” Consequently, the Lord, in essence, is saying, “I’m going to answer the question you should have asked.” Who do we let into our meetings?
Doctrine and Covenants 46:1-4: There is a certain protocol in the Church. But don’t get so far into agendas that the Spirit can’t guide you. All are welcome in your meetings. However, many new converts cannot discern what behaviors are manifestations of the Holy Ghost and which are not. The Lord needed to tell them which were legitimate and which were not.
The Nature of Spiritual Gifts
Dallin H. Oaks has give us much to ponder in his teachings on this subject:
Faith is a spiritual gift. So is personal revelation. So is a testimony of Jesus Christ. And there are other spiritual gifts. We know too little about spiritual gifts. This is evident in our communications, and it is also evident in our failure to seek after and use spiritual gifts.
It is important to understand the relationship between spiritual gifts and the Spirit of Christ, manifestations of the Holy Ghost, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Moroni says that all spiritual gifts “come by the Spirit of Christ.” (Moro. 10:17.) The Spirit of Christ “giveth light to every man that cometh into the world.” (D&C 84:46.) It “is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” (Moro. 7:16.) By this means every son and daughter of God has “the light” to judge what is right, and to seek to “lay hold upon every good thing.” (Moro. 7:18–19.) By this Spirit, all may seek to learn of God and to exercise faith in Him. Enlightened by this Spirit, all may seek spiritual gifts, which, Moroni says, “come unto every man severally, according as he will.” (Moro. 10:17.)
(Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Spiritual Gifts,” BYU Women’s Conference, March 28, 1986.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the gifts of the Spirit come to those who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost, and “cannot be enjoyed without the gift of the Holy Ghost. … The world in general can know nothing about them.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 243.) However, spiritual gifts do not come automatically and immediately to all who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith taught that most such gifts are “not visible to the natural vision, or understanding of man,” and that it “require[s] time and circumstances to call these gifts into operation.” (Teachings, 244, 246.)
As Elder Bruce R. McConkie declared in Nauvoo at the dedication of the Monument to Women:
“Where spiritual things are concerned, as pertaining to all of the gifts of the Spirit, with reference to the receipt of revelation, the gaining of testimonies, and the seeing of visions, in all matters that pertain to godliness and holiness and which are brought to pass as a result of personal righteousness in all these things men and women stand in a position of absolute equality before the Lord. He is no respecter of persons nor of sexes, and he blesses those men and those women who seek him and serve him and keep his commandments.” (Ensign, January 1979, 61.)
Guidelines to Using Spiritual Gifts
While the word covet is usually not used in a positive way in the scriptures, 1 Corinthians 12:31 admonishes us to “covet earnestly” the best gifts, which means fervently desire. Of course, there are many things we should not seek—signs, positions, office, etc.
Elder Oaks also taught: We are commanded not to seek for signs to develop our faith (see Matt. 12:39; D&C 63:12), for “faith cometh not by signs” (D&C 63:9). But when we have faith, repent, and are born of water and the Spirit, and when we love and serve God with all our hearts, we are eligible to receive spiritual gifts. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Spiritual Gifts, BYU Women’s Conference, March 28, 1986.)
2. Doctrine and Covenants 46:9 “Remember why they are given.” Don’t seek these gifts for the wrong reason. Here the Lord uses the word “benefit.” These gifts are given to benefit the Church through individuals. Moroni 10:8 uses the word “profit.” If I seek a gift, I want it to bless the Church, not for my own glory. (See also Doctrine and Covenants 46: 16, 26, 29) Paul uses a different word – “edify.” (1 Corinthians 14:4, 26) “Let all things be done unto edifying.”
“When we believe and seek spiritual gifts to benefit others “and not for a sign” (D&C 46:9), we are told that signs will follow. “Behold, … signs follow those that believe. Yea, signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God. Yea, signs come by faith, unto mighty works.” (D&C 63:9–11.) (Ibid.)
3. Doctrine and Covenants 46:11 We do not “all have the same gift.” We are also told that some will receive one gift and some will receive another. (See also 1 Cor. 12; Moro. 10:8–18.) In every case, the receipt of spiritual gifts is predicated upon faith, obedience, and personal righteousness. We shouldn’t rank these gifts, or compare ourselves to other people.
The same principle is evident in Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 12. Here spiritual gifts are likened to the various parts of the body, each performing its own function and each serving the entire “body of Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:27.) One of the dangers about comparing is that we don’t want to think what we have is inferior to another. Some are better at some things than others, but all are needed to function properly. It would be like the eye saying it doesn’t need the foot. If we admire another gift, then we are given an invitation to seek that gift.
Doctrine and Covenants 46:27-29 speaks of leaders being given discernment to determine “all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God, and that “unto some it may be given to have all those gifts.” Who gets all the gifts? Doctrine and Covenants 107:91-92 gives the answer. “The duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, . . . to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church.”
Would God just give all the gifts to a boy like Russell M. Nelson? Or would all these gifts come after a lifetime of service? Or does his gift of love encompass all other gifts?
4. Doctrine and Covenants 46:11 Everybody gets a gift. When we receive the Holy Ghost, we receive a big gift box that has a whole bunch of other little gifts inside it. Sometimes these gifts are given in patriarchal blessings, and sometimes we just learn what they are as we get older.
Orson Pratt provided this insight:
Spiritual gifts are those blessings given by the Holy Spirit to all who are made partakers of it. Whenever the Holy Ghost takes up its residence in a person, it not only cleanses, sanctifies, and purifies him in proportion as he yields himself to its influence, but also imparts to him some gift, intended for the benefit of himself and others. No one who has been born of the Spirit, and who remains sufficiently faithful is left destitute of a spiritual gift. (italics added, Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 100)
5. Moroni 10:16 Spiritual gifts may be manifested in different ways.
For example, we open the Holy Ghost gift and see the gift of tongues. (D&C 46:24) But we open that and see a bunch of other little gifts. These are the different ways the gift is manifested. The best scriptural example of this gift is on the day of Pentecost when all the apostles spoke different languages, and the crowd, who consisted of people from many different countries, each heard the preaching in their own languages. (See Acts 2:1-4) Today, the most common manifestation of this gift is found in how quickly and effectively missionaries learn to speak foreign languages as part of their missionary work. This happens much to the amazement of people outside of the Church. On many occasions, representatives from the government and large corporations come to representatives of the Church, enquiring about the methods used to teach foreign languages so effectively. It was difficult to explain to them this was a gift from the Holy Ghost, and it would have to be in harmony with the of the will of the Lord in order to accomplish his purposes.
Another manifestation in an ease and a fluency in your own language. Yet another is the ability to write in your own language well. Is there a difference between a spiritual gifts and talents? Perhaps not.
The gift of healing also has many manifestations. (D&C 46:20) It applies both to healing physically as well as healing spiritually. Being healed of bitterness and anger, and gaining a testimony of truth are, in the eternal perspective, even more important than being healed physically. Of course, all healing comes according to the ultimate design God has for each of his children. Which outcome will build more faith in that particular son or daughter? Sometimes it takes more faith to remain faithful after the blessing of physical healing is withheld.
We might also consider these questions. Can the gift of healing include a lifelong medical career? Or a special ability to facilitate emotional healing? What is God’s word for “uncanny ability”?
In addition, the gift of healing is not limited to priesthood holders. Faithful women are often blessed with this gift through their prayers of faith on behalf of the sick. The Prophet Joseph Smith spoke of faithful sisters healing the sick. He said, “If the sisters should have the faith to heal the sick, then let all hold their tongues, and let everything roll on.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 224.)
The gift of working miracles. (D&C 46:21) Although, like the gift of healing, we may tend to focus on the spectacular rather than the daily healings and miracles that are associated with this gift. If we have “eyes to see,” the gift of working miracles could be seen as the ability to lessen contention, perhaps through humor. It may be recognized in the spiritual “nudge” to call someone who has an urgent need to talk. It may take the form of a sudden inspiration to solve a technical problem or one on an assembly line. It may take the form of an impression to take a different route to work in order to avoid a traffic accident. It might be the gift of being able to comfort an inconsolable child who has taxed the patience of all others.
The gift of discernment is multi-faceted. (D&C 46:23) It can be the gift to be able to discern when something seems “fishy.” It can be knowing who needs help. The best manifestation is to know what spirit is influencing YOU. Elder Oaks said, “This power of discernment is essential if we are to distinguish between genuine spiritual gifts and the counterfeits Satan seeks to use to deceive men and women and thwart the work of God. (Oaks, Ibid.) The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the spirit of God.” (Teachings, 205)
David A. Bednar, on speaking of the gift of discernment, quoted President George Q. Cannon, who served as a counselor to four presidents of the Church:
One of the gifts of the Gospel which the Lord has promised to those who enter into covenant with Him is the gift of discerning of spirits—a gift which is not much thought of by many and probably seldom prayed for; yet it is a gift that is of exceeding value and one that should be enjoyed by every Latter-day Saint. . . .
Now, the gift of discerning of spirits not only gives men and women who have it the power to discern the spirit with which others may be possessed or influenced, but it gives them the power to discern the spirit which influences themselves. They are able to detect a false spirit and also to know when the Spirit of God reigns within them. In private life this gift is of great importance to the Latter-day Saints. Possessing and exercising this gift they will not allow any evil influence to enter into their hearts or to prompt them in their thoughts, their words or their acts. They will repel it; and if perchance such a spirit should get possession of them, as soon as they witness its effects they will expel it or, in other words, refuse to be led or prompted by it. (Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, comp. Jerreld L. Newquist (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 1:198–99)
He also quoted the additional insights of Elder Stephen L. Richards, who served as a counselor to President David O. McKay.
First, I mention the gift of discernment, embodying the power to discriminate . . . between right and wrong. I believe that this gift when highly developed arises largely out of an acute sensitivity to impressions—spiritual impressions, if you will—to read under the surface as it were, to detect hidden evil, and more importantly to find the good that may be concealed. The highest type of discernment is that which perceives in others and uncovers for them their better natures, the good inherent within them. . . .
. . . Every member in the restored Church of Christ could have this gift if he willed to do so. He could not be deceived with the sophistries of the world. He could not be led astray by pseudo-prophets and subversive cults. Even the inexperienced would recognize false teachings, in a measure at least. . . . We ought to be grateful every day of our lives for this sense which keeps alive a conscience which constantly alerts us to the dangers inherent in wrongdoers and sin. [CR, April 1950, 162–63; emphasis added]
Elder Bednar summarized these teachings as follows:
As we integrate the teachings of Presidents Cannon and Richards, we learn that the gift of discernment operates basically in four major ways.
First, as we “read under the surface,” discernment helps us detect hidden error and evil in others.
Second, and more important, it helps us detect hidden errors and evil in ourselves. Thus the spiritual gift of discernment is not exclusively about discerning other people and situations, but, as President Cannon taught, it is also about discerning things as they really are within us.
Third, it helps us find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in others.
And fourth, it helps us find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in us.
The gift to believe is discussed in Doctrine and Covenants 46:13-14. Elder Oaks has said: “Where it is given to some to know and to others to believe on their words, those who know must be responsible for sharing their testimonies. Only in this way can they give those who have the gift of believing on their words something to lean upon as they, too, move toward eternal life.” (Ibid.)
Doctrine and Covenants 46:15-25 speaks those who understand the differences of administrations and operations. The gift of administrations could include “the gift of leadership, understanding and skillfully using the various organizations within the Church to save souls.” (David J. Ridges, The Doctrine and Covenants Made Easier, Part 2, 39)
Those who are given the gift to know the diversity of operations might include “the gift of being able to distinguish between true philosophies and false philosophies, good ideas and bad ideas, wise counsel and foolish counsel, whether something is from God or from some other sources.” (Ibid, 40)
Elder Marion G. Romney, who served in the First Presidency, explained “the diversity of operations” as follows:
By the statement in the revelation on spiritual gifts, “. . . it is given by the Holy Ghost to some to know the diversities of operations, whether they be of God, . . . and to others the discerning of spirits,” it appears that there are some apparently supernatural manifestations which are not worked by the power of the Holy Ghost. The truth is there are many which are not. The world today is full of counterfeits. It has always been so. Away back in the days of Moses, when Aaron’s rod became a serpent, . . . Pharaoh’s wise men, sorcerers and magicians “. . . then cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents. . .” (Exodus 7:11-12) Isaiah warned against seeking “ . . . unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter. . .” (Isaiah 8:19)
The Saints were cautioned by the Lord to walk uprightly before him, doing all things with prayer and thanksgiving, that they might . . . “not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments men; . . . “ (D&C 46:7)
These citations not only sustained the proposition that there are counterfeit to the gifts of the Spirit, but they also suggest the origin of the counterfeits. However, we are not required to rely alone upon their implications, plain as they are, for the Lord states specifically that some of the counterfeits “. . . are of men, and others of devils.” (D&C 46:7)
Some of these counterfeits are crude and easily detected, but others closely simulate true manifestations of the spirit. Consequently, people are confused and deceived by them. Without a key, one cannot distinguish between the genuine and counterfeit. (Conference Report, April 1956, 70-71.)
The gift of wisdom might include the wise use of knowledge, or “seeing through the façade, and getting to the root cause, etc. It includes the gift of seeing ahead to the ultimate consequences of a particular course of action.” (Ridges, 41.)
The gift of knowledge and the gift of teaching can be viewed as having two gifts in one. We have all had the experience of being edified by a gifted, knowledgeable teacher.
Another spiritual gift is the gift of prophecy. ( D&C 46:22) On the Day of Pentecost, Peter quoted a prophecy from the Old Testament (see Joel 2:28–29):“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: “And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17–18.)
As we read in the Book of Revelation, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Rev. 19:10.) The Prophet Joseph Smith used this scripture as the basis for teaching that “every other man who has the testimony of Jesus” is a prophet. (Teachings, 119.) In speaking of spiritual gifts, a prophet is one who testifies of Jesus Christ, teaches God’s word, and exhorts God’s people. In its scriptural sense, to prophesy means much more than to predict the future. Prophecy means to speak the counsel of God.
Brigham Young wrote of seeing the gifts we possess in a new light:
The gift of seeing with the natural eyes is just as much a gift as the gift of tongues. The Lord gave that gift and we can do as we please with regard to seeing; we can use the sight of the eye to glory of God, or to our own destruction.
The gift of taste is the gift of God, we can use that to feed and pamper the lusts of the flesh, or we can use it to the glory of God.
The gift of communicating one with another is the gift of God, just as much so as the gift of prophecy, of discerning spirits, of tongues, or any other gift, though sight, taste, and speech, are so generally bestowed that they are not considered in the same miraculous light as are those gifts mentioned in the Gospel. (Journal of Discourses 3:364)
Elder Marvin J. Ashton also spoke of these “less conspicuous gifts” as follows:
Let us review some of these less-conspicuous gifts: the gift of asking, the gift of listening, the gift of hearing and using I still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost. (“There Are Many Gifts,” Ensign, November 1987)
6. Charity is the greatest of all the gifts. (See 1 Corinthians 13) There will be a time when no one needs the gift of healing. We’ll be resurrected. The gift of tongues won’t be needed. “Charity never faileth” means that love will always be around. It is essential.
7. Doctrine and Covenants 46:32 We always need to thank God for the gifts we benefit from, or for the ones we have.
8. Doctrine and Covenants 46:33 If I want to maintain the gifts, I need to “practice” living a virtuous life.
Seeking Spiritual Gifts
Elder Oaks has given us this encouragement, “We should seek after spiritual gifts. They can lead us to God. They can shield us from the power of the adversary. They can compensate for our inadequacies and repair our imperfections.” (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Spiritual Gifts,” BYU Women’s Conference, March 28, 1986.)
Hugh Nibley offered this insight:
But all men are not alike in stature, temperament, or endowment. That’s why the Lord, in the revelations, lays such emphasis on gifts. It is through the various gifts distributed among us that we are able to get into the act. We are told repeatedly both to ask for gifts and seek for gifts (cf. D&C 42, 46). Among the last words of the Book of Mormon are “Do not deny the gifts, do not reject the gifts” (cf. Moroni 10:8). On the other hand, we are commanded not to ask for or seek for office. Yet nobody seems particularly interested in asking or seeking for gifts, while men constantly plan, scheme, and aspire to office. Martin Harris and others actually left the Church because their services were not recognized by high office. Martin Harris, who had the privilege of standing in the presence of an angel and turning over the plates, wanted an office in the Church, something which would only be temporary and a nuisance. Why, let me talk to Moroni for five minutes and I’ll give you the pleasure of sitting on the stand for evermore!
Over a century ago, President George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency taught the Saints:
If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. … No man ought to say, ‘Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.’ He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things, and to give gifts that will eradicate them. If a man lacks wisdom, it is his duty to ask God for wisdom. The same with everything else. That is the design of God concerning His Church. He wants His Saints to be perfected in the truth. For this purpose He gives these gifts, and bestows them upon those who seek after them, in order that they may be a perfect people upon the face of the earth. (Millennial Star, April 1894, 260.)
Every defect in the human character can be corrected through the exercise of faith and pleading with the Lord for the gifts that He has said He will give unto those who believe and obey His commandments. (Oct. 1, 1896, JI 31:572) (Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, selected, arranged, and edited by Jerreld L. Newquist, 155)
If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. Have I imperfections? I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections. If I am an angry man, it is my duty to pray for charity, which suffereth long and is kind. Am I an envious man? It is my duty to seek for charity, which envieth not. So with all the gifts of the gospel. They are intended for this purpose.
(George Q. Cannon, Nov. 26, 1893, Discourses and Writings of George Q. Cannon, 48:34-35 quoted in Marvin Ashton, “Measure of our Hearts,” 24-25)
Background to Doctrine and Covenants 47
John Whitmer was born in Pennsylvania in 1802. His family later moved to New York, eventually settling near Fayette, about 30 miles southeast of Palmyra. David Whitmer offered the assistance of his brother John as a scribe. Joseph accepted and resided with the Whitmers until the translation was finished. Soon after Joseph arrived in Fayette, 26-year-old John Whitmer was baptized in Seneca Lake. He became one of the Eight Witnesses.
When the Church was organized at the Whitmer home on April 6, 1830, the Lord instructed Joseph Smith, “There shall a record be kept among you.” To comply with this commandment, Oliver Cowdery was appointed the first Church historian. Joseph’s revelations formed a significant part of the historical record. In July 1830, the Prophet “began to arrange and copy the revelations that he had received thus far,” with Whitmer acting as scribe. (See Revelations in Context: The Book of John Whitmer by Brian Reeves)
When Oliver Cowdery left on a mission to the Lamanites in the fall of 1830, John Whitmer was appointed “by the voice of the Elders to keep the Church record.” Whitmer was comfortable transcribing Joseph Smith’s revelations but hesitant to embrace the unfamiliar role of historian. He told Joseph, “I would rather not do it,” but he agreed to accept the assignment if the Lord willed it, and manifested it through a revelation “through Joseph the Seer.” (Ibid.)
In the resulting revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 47), dated March 8, 1831, the Lord affirmed that John Whitmer would have the twofold assignment to write and keep a regular history, and transcribe the revelations he had already received. Knowing that John Whitmer was insecure about his writing skills, the Lord promised that “It shall be given thee by the comforter to write these things.” Three months later, Whitmer began his history, “The Book of John Whitmer.”
Whitmer kept his record of the Church for the duration of his membership, which ended in 1838. In 1834, Joseph Smith appointed a presidency for the Church in Missouri, with John Whitmer and W. W. Phelps serving as counselors to David Whitmer. John Whitmer and Phelps were later accused of financial wrongdoing in connection with their positions there and were subsequently excommunicated from the Church in March 1838.
Joseph Smith arrived in Far West just days after the excommunications. A newly appointed clerk called on Whitmer to obtain his history, but Whitmer refused to surrender the document. He temporarily left Far West during the Mormon difficulties of 1838–39, but he returned a short time later and resided there for the rest of his life.
After the death of John Whitmer in 1878, his history passed to his brother David, and in 1903 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints obtained the history from a David Whitmer descendant. Eventually, in 1974, the Church obtained a microfilmed copy of the manuscript in an exchange of historical materials with the RLDS Church. In 2012, John Whitmer’s history was published as part of the Church’s Joseph Smith Papers project.
This week, we have studied sections that refer to some things that we might not think apply to us in the 21st century. After all, when have we seen people writhing on the floor in a meeting? However, I don’t think counterfeit spiritual manifestations are only a thing of the past. We have been home from our mission to Long Beach for two years now, and thinking back to our drives down Highway 1 to the Newport Beach Temple, I remember seeing a “Spiritualist” or “Palm Reader” shop on just about every corner. They were as plentiful as nail salons. People are seeking “spiritual” guidance, even if it is not from “religion.”
If they only knew what they were missing! We are so very blessed to have the manifestation of true spiritual gifts as members of the restored Church. I remember having people visit the Language Training Mission in Hawaii when I was learning Chinese who couldn’t believe how rapidly the missionaries were able to learn the fundamentals of such difficult Oriental languages so quickly. It was challenging to try to explain to them that we believed that it was part of the “gift of tongues” promised to the early Christians. If I had not experienced the many manifestations of this gift myself in China, I too would find it hard to believe.
I had a lot of experiences with being “led,” by the Spirit to where we should knock on doors—it used to be called tracting. In August of 1973, Woo (Oo) Wong Mei Ying was baptized at the Kam Tong chapel in Hong Kong. It was a happy end to a long and difficult teaching process. On May 20, we finished the grid in our area where we were tracting, and, as senior companion, I had to decide where we should start tracting next. I looked up and saw the sun shining on a tall, white building on the waterfront a few blocks away, and felt that we needed to go there right then.
At the first door we knocked on, a lady answered and said with a big smile on her face, “Come in! I’ve been praying for you to come today and you did.” (She had been swindled out of some money, and needed a sign from God that everything would be all right.) The very day we came, she received the news that she was getting some of her money back, and she took our coming as a sign of good luck. We taught her the gospel and she joined the Church. She was from Shanghai and spoke a different dialect than we did, Shanghainese. Somehow, she could understand our Cantonese. She had very poor eyesight and read her Book of Mormon with a magnifying glass. A few months after she joined the Church, she invited four of the missionaries who had taught her to dinner on a P-day. She wanted to show her love and appreciation for them bringing her the gospel. (We were only allowed to accept one cheng-out [dinner invitation] a month because the Mission President didn’t want to tax the hospitality of the new members too much.) When we came to her house for dinner that night, she couldn’t understand a thing any of us said, and vice versa! It was the weirdest thing. The Spirit of the Lord must have really helped us understand her language when we were teaching her. Talk about the gift of tongues!
I am so very grateful for the gifts of the Spirit that are part of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it is wonderful that we are encouraged to “Seek ye earnestly the best gifts,” and even to covet them. They are given with the intent that we may bless the lives of others.
I also had to smile at the thought that John Whitmer was not too excited to be the Church Historian. Writing is difficult for many of us. And yet, we have been encouraged to keep a history of our lives.
Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, who served as Church Historian and Recorder from 2005 to 2012 wrote:
“We keep records to help us remember. … We desire to help Church members remember the great things God has done for His children. … Lessons from the past help us cope with our present and give us hope for our future” (“There Shall Be a Record Kept among You,” Ensign, Dec. 2007, 28, 33).
May we have the faith necessary to be up to the task of doing these difficult things, for the rewards will be great if we do. The Lord knows this and wants us to succeed. I love this quote from Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
“The Lord does not ask about our ability or our inability,
but only about our availability.
And if we prove our dependability,
the Lord will take care of our capability.”